So what’s Polish Jazz really like?

The young jazz scene is constantly growing in strength – like the legendary Polish Jazz series, which releases extremely interesting records by musicians from the young generation. Kuba Więcek Trio, Jerry & The Pelican System and EABS all look at jazz from different vantage points.

Translation: Aleksandra Szkudłapska

One could write screeds and screeds on the progression and growth of the Polish jazz scene – and on the rejuvenated Polish Jazz series. Two years ago, Kuba Więcek was the latter’s youngest debut, successively opening a new chapter of the noble record series. Others are subsequently being written all over the place. Towards the end of the 2010s, the young jazz scene in Poland is buzzing with ideas: from the improvised circles of the Warsaw scene centred around Eufemia (a cult venue shut down in 2017), the Gdańsk-based Alpaka Records who released, e.g., Algorhythm, the achievements of Kamil Piotrowicz (keep your eyes peeled for Howard Records, which is about to release his subsequent albums!), Tomasz Chyła, Pimpono Ensemble or the outskirts of jazz represented by bands such as Polmuz. The generation of 20- and 30-year-olds is informed by a global mix of influences and has a different outlook on the contemporary world, which situates them in a different starting point from their older colleagues from Miłość, Pink Freud or the Lado ABC label. They refer to Polish traditions, but without being all stuck up about it; the edge of their criticism – if at all present – tends to be focused on the form and strict genre rules (which they are constantly working to expand). The “Polish Jazz” label is not without significance either – this Polskie Nagrania series was launched in the 1960s, but has been in limbo for nearly the last three decades. When rights to PN were acquired by Warner, this changed with the release of Więcek’s Another Raindrop two years ago (for which he received the Fryderyk – the most important award of the Polish music business – in the debut category). Taking the mickey out of the “Polish jazz” slogan by Lounge Ryszards may now be seen as passé. And new records by Kuba Więcek Trio, Jerry & The Pelican System and EABS again offer a glance at the youngest jazz scene and its aspirations.

On his latest record, the aforementioned Kuba Więcek – who studied in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, learning from the likes of Steve Lehman along the way – is impudent and impetuous in a way that reminds me of Shabaka Hutchings, although their musical origins are entirely different. Więcek, who plays in Franciszek Pospieszalski and Kamil Piotrowicz’s sextets, has made a pulsating, refreshing album, full of plot twists, based on rhythm and an intriguing combination of ideas. While Another Raindrop was recorded live in the studio, Multitastking features some heavy post-production work (like what Algorhythm did with Termomix) based on material created with Michał Brański and Łukasz Żyta. The sound is one thing, though, the broadened instrumentation is another: there’s room here for synthesizers, glockenspiel and a more electrified feel in general. It’s no longer just acoustic, sometimes seems programmed, but never automated, and that comes across brilliantly in “Jazz Robots”, where this daring pulsation – driven by the saxophone rather than drums – sparkles and shines. Więcek interweaves Polish jazz with global geography, like a true citizen of the world: with his various ensembles, he travels across continents and translates these inspirations into his album. The electrified “Tacos in LA” sounds quite cheeky, “Jazz Masala” – enriched with the Konnakol rhythmic singing derived from the Carnatic tradition – is slightly oriental, as is the title track, the fantastic finale enhanced in post-production. We get a breather with the lyrical, delicate “Eden”, followed up by “Wspomnienie starego kowala i jego los” with Michał Barański’s glockenspiel, which seems electronically distorted towards the end. The musicians paint a colourful picture of their inspirations, which they are able to present in evocative, complex forms, at the same time concise and rich on content (and most of them within the ‘radio friendly’ length of 3-4 minutes). The structure of the record is amazing too, maintaining the same level of tension from start to finish: on the one hand, the amount of ideas is just-so, on the other, the musicians are balanced, with the saxophonist encouraging the other two to alternately take the lead. Like the multitasking in the title: complex music, a base of ideas and inspirations, sophisticated production and a fantastic, clear sound. In a nutshell: an intense, vibrating and fresh record.

The second frontman who doesn’t want to pump his ego is Jerzy Mączyński. The 24-year-old, who studied in Wrocław, Odense and Valencia and played in P.E. Quartet, draws inspiration from folk music, electronica, rock grooves, even traces of Carnatic music. In Jerry & The Pelican System, he gathered musicians from various scenes who feel equally good playing rock, electronic or jazz music (in such outfits as Franciszek Pospieszalski Sextet or Entropia Ensemble). Their experience influenced the sound of the record, although the music was composed by Mączyński himself. Like Więcek, Mączyński is also able to showcase what his band has got best (although this is not as clearly highlighted): the acoustic brass sound is juxtaposed with Korg grooves, Wiktoria Jakubowska’s drumming often has a rock/soul feel to it, and there’s also room for Marcel Baliński’s lyrical piano solos. The ensemble offers us two three-piece suites which last well over 10 minutes, yet maintain the balance between ambience and dynamics. Take “Peeace Off”, for example: the subtle beginning develops into a sweet second part, concluding with a fiery finale. On the one hand, I’m really taken with this diversity – the intriguing details, such as the dense synthesizer bass instead of the piano, the subtle rhythm section on electronic pads, frivolous keyboard parts or a subtle game with silence in “Zoża hej” – on the other, I feel like I’ve been served too much to digest. Throughout almost seventy(!) minutes of music, the young saxophonist seems to have too many irons in the fire. Some tracks are really captivating with their swashbuckling or lyrical atmosphere, but they get slightly lost in the thicket of ideas and subjects. While this is an interesting album, it is often lacking character, perhaps even direction. What Pelikan wants to sound like is not entirely clear – the youthful impetuosity needs to become more rooted in something to really take shape.

If Więcek and Mączyński are citizens of the world, EABS (which stands for the Wrocław-based series of music meetings: Electro–Acoustic Beat Sessions) is much closer to soul and hip hop than jazz, although they aspire for the latter, albeit via a different path. You could hear that on their debut album Repetitions, where they reworked the lesser known pieces by Krzysztof Komeda and – inspired by Kamashi Washington – served them in an electronic and hip hop formula. The foundation was clear there, but on Slavic Spirits we’ve got original compositions that originate with the rhythm section: Paweł Stachowiak (bass) and Marcin Rak (drums). While the musicians may reach for jazz instrumentation, their method is still more informed by hip hop – even Tenderlonius, who makes a guest appearance on the record, is closer to electronica than jazz (as is clear in his new album Hard Rain). In the lengthy essay added to the deluxe edition of the record, I read about what influenced the band’s Slavic melancholy, with the tropes spanning Tomasz Stańko, Czesław Niemen and Księżyc. Nevertheless, Slavic Spirits does not touch upon said melancholy quite as deeply as  Enigmatic, Balladyna or Księżyc. Repetitions – as indicated by the title – is based on the repetitive sampling technique (although here the samples are played live) and the band don’t really succeed in diversifying this direction: they seem closer to the nu–jazz of Ninja Tune or J–Dilla than to Robert Glasper or the spiritual jazz of Kamashi Washington (which seemed more in line with the Polish septet’s aims). In terms of the “Slavic spirit”, EABS is, in effect, reinventing the wheel: this is more of a cunning marketing trick and mind candy for big-city music fans who are not too sussed out about jazz, used to be into hip hop and electronica, and have now broadened their taste to include a band with a trumpet and saxophone in the lineup. In the multitude of motif after motif after motif, what I miss in Slavic Spirits is a consistent narrative and a break from hackneyed patterns rather than following simple oppositions: solo – group play, intro – development, anticipation – rapture. The record reminds me of a laboratory, of an experiment released too early into the world. EABS want to catch up with the young Polish jazz scene, but they’re still behind what’s truly interesting in the genre – all while the peloton keeps racing forward in terms of technique, arrangements and production. According to Bartek Chaciński, had the record been released in the Polish Jazz series, chances are it would have gone straight to its TOP10. As a counterargument, I can easily name ten other bands who deserve the place more. Even EABS themselves have provided quite a solid top 10, so they do know the good stuff when they hear it.

Kuba Więcek Trio, Multitasking, Polish Jazz/Warner Music
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Jerzy Mączyński, Jerry & The Pelican System, Polish Jazz/Warner Music
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EABS, Slavic Spirits, Astigmatic
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